Save Time and Sanity by Editing with the Three “R’s”

Back in the late 1980s I read a book by Theodore A. Rees Cheney titled Getting the Words Right: How to Revise, Edit and Rewrite. And there’s one suggestion from that book that I use on a near-daily basis—editing with the three “R’s.”

Cheney advocates taking a rough draft of an article or chapter and editing it in three distinct stages:

1. Reduce. Read the entire manuscript once while looking for whole sections or pages that you can cut. Then read it again looking for individual paragraphs, sentences, phrases, and words that you can delete. If your editing time is limited, spend most of your time on reducing.

2. Rearrange. Now read your manuscript again, looking at it with fresh eyes after your reductions. Does it flow well? If not, move things around. See if putting sections, paragraphs, or sentences in a different order helps.

3. Reword. Finally it’s time to polish and fine tune. Scrutinize individual words and phrases. Use concrete, specific nouns. Choose active verbs. Keep subjects and verbs close together in most sentences, remembering that this is not an absolute rule. Varying sentence length and structure helps you avoid dull, droning prose.

This three-stage process is truly elegant. It proceeds from whole to parts in a logical and practical order. After all, why spend hours honing individual sentences to the level of Biblical prose—only to cut them all out later?

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For some inscrutable reason, people seem naturally drawn to rewording before reducing and rearranging. This is a perfect prescription for an endless writing project. I’m begging you—don’t make this mistake! Starting your editing process with rewording is a mind-numbing time suck.

The three “R’s” technique also promotes sanity. It reminds you to edit in three separate stages and to focus on only one task during each stage.

You can verify the wisdom of this for yourself. Just try reducing, rearranging, and rewording a long manuscript all at once. For me, the result is always an extended brain fart:

  • mental gridlock
  • self-mortification
  • existential angst
  • drooling

The all-in-one-pass is simply unworkable for mere mortals.

Reduce, rearrange, and reword—in that order. That way you can actually finish your writing project during this lifetime.

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